Cornel West

Imported Charlottesville clergy: When a simple narrative overtakes the complex facts

Imported Charlottesville clergy: When a simple narrative overtakes the complex facts

Everyone is doing their Charlottesville post-mortems, which is why I was interested in what the New Yorker had to say about how church leaders there prepared for white supremacists.

The local clergy, and visiting clergy, played a crucial role in this story and many reporters made little or no effort to separate this group of counter-protesters from the highly confrontational, and ultimately violent, Antifa crowd that came in from outside.

That brings us to this New Yorker piece. What I didn't expect was a romanticized version of local clergy activism and a de-emphasis on the amount of outside clergy reinforcements brought in to maintain that false impression. The key facts: What clergy took part? Who didn't join the protests? Why? Where are the other voices?

The story begins at a historic black school where a few hundred of the town’s residents gather to assess exactly what happened on their streets to cause three people to die there during the recent riots.

One of the local leaders at the school was instantly recognizable to everybody: a sixty-five-year-old reverend named Alvin Edwards. When Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, came to town on Sunday, he went directly to a service at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, which is Edwards’s congregation. He’s been there for the past thirty-six years, and during that time he’s also served as the city’s mayor and as a member of its school board. His years in politics have only seemed to strengthen his ties to his parishioners, and he likes to joke, with folksy charm, about his “B.C. days” -- before Christ -- when he lived in Illinois, where he grew up with plans “to make money and to be an industrial engineer.” Edwards marched with the counter-protesters over the weekend, but these days he’s best known for founding a broad coalition of local faith leaders called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective.

The article goes on to describe how the Collective got wind of an upcoming Ku Klux Klan visit and decided to hold a counter rally. Two of the major churches involved were Mt. Zion and St. Paul’s Episcopal.

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